Novak eyes another night in his happy place

  • Reem Abulleil

A day before his highly-anticipated showdown with Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic took a “conservative” ride at a bike park – as he described it – and hit the beach with his coach Marian Vajda.

Already a joint-record holder for most Australian Open men’s singles titles won, alongside Roy Emerson and Roger Federer, Djokovic is bidding to become the first man to claim the trophy seven times when he takes on Nadal on Sunday.

“Look, there's so much at stake. Obviously making history of the sport that I love is an honour and is a privilege. It's a huge motivation. At the same time Nadal is across the net. We're playing finals of Grand Slam for the record seventh title here. If you don't get motivated by all these things, then something is wrong,” Djokovic told reporters after his semifinal win over Lucas Pouille on Friday.

MORE: Djokovic jumps into seventh AO decider

The Australian Open has been a cornerstone for Djokovic’s career, and it’s where he has enjoyed the most success. So it’s no surprise he is able to enjoy everything that Melbourne has to offer just a day before his 53rd clash with his archrival Nadal.

Melbourne Park is where Djokovic contested his first-ever Grand Slam main draw, back in 2005, where he managed to win just three games against eventual champion Marat Safin.

It’s also where he lifted his first of 14 Grand Slam trophies, defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2008, at the age of 20. That major breakthrough came just four months after he had lost his maiden Slam final to Roger Federer in New York. He exacted his revenge by overcoming the Swiss in the semifinals en route to his first Australian Open crown.

Djokovic made his major breakthrough in Melbourne 11 years ago

Rod Laver Arena also provided the setting for a historic moment in Djokovic’s career. It’s where he showcased his gladiatorial abilities in a near-six-hour final victory over Nadal in 2012. That match was the longest Grand Slam final in history. The image of both players barely able to stand during the trophy ceremony reflected the war of attrition that unfolded over the five sets that night.

“How would I describe it?” Djokovic answered when asked how he would recall that match to his children or grandchildren in the future.

“I'll probably not have them sit down and watch it, because I don't like my children to watch TV that long. But I would probably present it in more a general concept of our rivalry. That match would be icing on the cake.”

There's a lot of good vibe, good buzz around the city. People of Australia love sport, nurture the sport values. They love their tennis, as well
Novak Djokovic

Djokovic is a career Grand Slam winner, but Melbourne is arguably where he feels the most loved by the crowd. Nadal is the king of Roland Garros, where he has triumphed a record 11 times. Federer is the master of Wimbledon, where he owns an unprecedented eight men’s singles titles.

Buoyed by the loud and dedicated Serbian community that comes out to support him each time he’s in town, Djokovic has found a second home at the Australian Open. His winning record at Melbourne Park is a remarkable 89.3 per cent (67-8 win-loss record entering Sunday’s final) – his best among the four majors.

“I've had lots of success in Australia in the past. I think it's also due to that support that I get from the Serbian community, but also people internationally that come to support all the tennis players,” Djokovic said ahead of the start of this Australian Open.  

“They call it the ‘Happy Slam’ for a reason. There's a lot of good vibe, good buzz around the city. People of Australia love sport, nurture the sport values. They love their tennis, as well.”

Over the years, Djokovic and Melbourne have built a mutual love affair

The Djokovic-Nadal rivalry is the most contested men’s duel in Open Era history. Djokovic has the edge 27-25 in their head-to-head and has won 12 of their past 15 encounters.

Djokovic says his win over Pouille on Friday, where he dropped just four games in total, is one of the best matches he’s ever played at Rod Laver Arena. Add to that the fact that he defeated Nadal in their most recent clash, in the Wimbledon semis last July, and you can safely assume the Serb is fancying his chances on Sunday.

Nadal has had to deal with numerous career-threatening injuries throughout his career and admits that now that he is 32, he has learnt to adapt his game to his age. Djokovic, at 31, does the opposite.

“I have a slightly different approach: I adapt the age to the game. I don't feel at the moment that my body has any significant wear and tear that would compromise my game. My game is pretty much the same,” said Djokovic.

“Of course, looking to improve, as anybody else. But generally seeing and feeling the game is quite similar to what I have had throughout my career. I will not change anything for the moment.”

That in itself sounds like a scary thought. Nadal will have his work cut out for him on Sunday. An in-form Djokovic on Rod Laver Arena is one of the toughest combinations in tennis.